Saturday, January 7, 2017

It's Not Easy Being DBG : Landmark, EQNext

In a move that surely surprised no-one Daybreak Games yesterday announced the intent to sunset Landmark on February 21 2017. Why this particular date, who knows? It's a Tuesday, which is DBG's regular patch day, so I guess it's just convenient. Everything has to end sometime. Why not then?

The announcement has stirred up the inevitable, expected and by now immensely tedious flurry of schadenfreude and faux-rage from people who most likely never played Landmark or indeed any other SOE or DBG game. Not, at least, in the last decade or so. Tyler F.M. Edwards at Superior Realities has the best take on the hand-wringing, fist-shaking echo chamber that passes for a community in some quarters these days:

"To be blunt, I think the blame for Landmark’s end rests squarely on the shoulders of the MMO community. When EverQuest Next was cancelled, the community turned on Daybreak, apparently not understanding that sometimes new concepts simply do not work...the community, however, chose to demonize Daybreak as some sort of ogre. They took EverQuest Next’s cancellation personally. And a lot of that hate spilled over to Landmark.

People hated Landmark because it wasn’t Next. People hated Landmark just because it was made by Daybreak. People hated it because they had misinformed or unrealistic expectations of what it was supposed to be".

Read the whole of Tyler's post. It catches the tone exactly, how Landmark meant a lot to those who loved it, how much it will be missed, and how galling it is for anyone who actually spent real time in Landmark to see the almost self-congratulatory bloodletting unleashed by those who never did.

An even more instructive read is Feldon's excellent post-hoc analysis at EQ2Wire. Feldon, as always, knows more than he's able to articulate openly but here you scarcely even need to read between the lines. The numerous quotes from ex-SOE devs, who worked on Landmark and EQNext during what must have been some very miserable and disturbing times in the dying days of the ancien régime, are devestating.

These are just a few of the highlights:

"…the decision to publish Landmark was not driven to sell something to players. It was done to show that SOE had a pipeline of products so it would be more attractive to prospective buyers"

"Landmark was a disaster. It should have remained a toolset for building EQN and nothing more."

"Landmark was Dave’s (Georgeson's) obsession, and there simply was no way to convince him otherwise about it being a game. I believe this ultimately killed EQN."

"Dave approached the project with the wrong assumptions and when the market pushed back he doubled down on his mistakes. EQN was his responsibility and he blew it, and Smed should have removed him sooner when it became clear what was happening."

 All from people who worked on the project. And there's a lot more. Go read it if you haven't already.

Feldon himself has some choice observations, the headline among which is probably this one:

"The EverQuest Next “combat demo” shown at SOE Live in 2013 was entirely smoke and mirrors, with developers back at the home office “playing” NPCs."
 This one won't surprise anyone who plays EQ or EQ2:
"Feedback from the existing EverQuest and EverQuest II teams was largely ignored. Instead, credence was primarily given to outside feedback from recently laid off 38 Studios staff and other outsiders in the industry."

And, perhaps most tellingly of all:

"Sony Online Entertainment took a $62 million writeoff in 2013 for development costs associated with EverQuest Next and H1Z1". 

I hold my hand up. Dave Georgeson, John Smedley and the rest of that whole, sorry crew fooled me the way they fooled the industry, the media and the rest of the fans. I wrote pieces in praise of EQNext even as I understood it would be an MMO that wasn't being made for me or for the millions of former and current EQ and EQ2 players but for a whole, new, much larger audience. I understood the compromises that would require and I knew and wrote that the game would not, in all likelihood, be one I'd enjoy very much, yet I wished it well and hoped it would succeed.

What I didn't realize was that there would be no game, no matter how long we waited, because no-one who was making it had any idea how it could be made. I didn't realize the Smed and Smokejumper dog and pony show was just that - a carnival huckster operation linked to some of the widest-eyed, most naive wishful-thinking ever seen outside a pre-school playground.

The very first comment on the EQ2Wire piece sums it up nicely:

"I am just speechless as how much Georgeson fucked over this franchise."

Aren't we all?  And yet I don't "hate" him for it. I don't believe anyone in this whole unholy mess was acting maliciously. Like so many other games development stories it's a tale of people who think they know more than they know, who think they can do more than they can do, and above all, who believe if they say something often enough and loud enough it will become true by the sheer force of their wishing it so.

Well it doesn't. It won't. It can't. EQNext always sounded too good be true and it was. Or rather it wasn't and never will be.

As for Landmark, far from being the full-fledged MMO Dave Georgeson claimed, promised and finger-crossed it would be, it never even managed to be the toolset it should have been. As Feldon's investigations plainly discover, even the tools didn't work and when they did no-one knew how or why.

And yet for all that we had fun. I had funAywren had fun. Tyler had fun. Even Wilhelm, who's keeping a list, had a few moments. Hundreds, thousands of amazing structures were built, projects started, memories made. I had good times in Landmark, some of which I've written about here. I spent many happy hours noodling around there and if I regret anything it's only that I spent too much time.

Far from feeling ripped off for paying some $150 for two alpha packages I feel I got my money's worth and then some. Between us Mrs Bhagpuss and I spent hundreds of hours in Landmark and almost all of those were good hours.

So, will I miss Landmark? No, not really. I'm glad to have experienced it but if I'm honest I was done with it a while ago. All my houses eventually fell down, including the final one I built after the game officially went Live. The main he reason was I couldn't ever remember to log in often enough to keep them standing. When you have to remind yourself to log in you can hardly claim you'll miss it when it stops.

And in the end, what was Landmark? It wasn't quite a game and it certainly wasn't a virtual world. It was supposed to be those things and a toolset too but the best description I can come up with is that Landmark was a toy.

Like a toy, I played with it now and again, when the mood took me, but as soon as I put it down I forgot all about it. If I miss it, ever, it will be the way I miss my old Hot Wheels set, vaguely and with a mild, warm nostalgia. I wouldn't go out and buy another.

I understand that's not how many will be feeling right now, although you'd need to define "many" rather specifically, since these days peak population across the entire game falls short of a couple of hundred people. The builders and creators, working on some of those stunning projects or just puttering around, like my old gaming friend who was busy building his own take on The Shire with some guildmates from LoTRO, those folks will be angry, upset, hurt, bereft.

Some will feel tricked. Some will feel betrayed. They will curl in or lash out. Inevitably, the blank slate of Daybreak Games and the faceless corporate monolith that is Columbus Nova will take a splattering of paint while the real perpetrators of this outrage not only escape condemnation but even reap the deeply undeserved rewards of misplaced sympathy: Dave Georgeson, who appears to have left the industry and Smed, who the industry appears to be leaving behind, not to mention the ever-anonymous Russell Shanks, who presided over DBG while more poor decisions continued to be made, as well as the rest who slipped away quietly while the sign-painters were changing the names on the doors.

Yes, Columbus Nova and the current Daybreak management could have finessed the end of both EQNext and Landmark with a softer touch. It was foolish to claim EQNext was being canned because "it wasn't fun". They should have said "because it won't run and never will". Because "we bit off more than we could chew, we had dreams bigger than our ability to realize them, because we made promises we couldn't keep".

They might have adopted a warmer, more empathic tone. They might even have resisted slamming the door on any remaining hope quite so fiercely, although that in itself might merely have compounded earlier errors of judgment.

They should have said sorry and meant it but by the time there was no putting off the inevitable any longer all the people from whom an apology would have meant anything were nowhere to be seen. I imagine the main thing Columbus Nova is sorry about is that they ever got involved in this farrago in the first place. Like the rest of us I imagine they were mesmerized by smoke and mirrors and sold a handful of beans. When they rubbed the fairy dust from their eyes the carnival was gone.

I'd love - I'd love -  for the closure of Landmark to draw a line under this whole sorry episode. I'd love for late-period SOE to slip away into the history books taking its ill-conceived, ill-fated, ill-humored EQNext project with it, never to be mentioned again. I'd love for the current management team at Daybreak to be allowed to get on with day to day operations and business as usual.

Yes, I'd love that but this is the internet. This is gaming. No grudge is ever forgotten. No wound is ever allowed to heal. The very best those of us who love the franchise can hope is that Daybreak under Columbus Nova finally becomes so boring that no-one remembers it's there.

Fat chance. Next up, some necessary but controversial decision involving LotRO or DDO. Or an announcement of some new game that everyone can project their fantasies and fears onto without ever needing to see let alone play. The caravan rolls on.


  1. I can't really get on board blaming the community. The cancellation of EQN made some people angry, but SOE/DGC had set their reputation with the community as a whole long before then. Hating on SOE goes all the way back to the EQ beta... which was, of course, better than the game at launch, because beta is always better for somebody.

    Yes, there are people out there who cheer every Daybreak stumble because they've been burned. But I'll tell you, as an EVE Online player, I see a lot of generally unnecessary hate against my game too. Also, who hates DGC more than the regulars in the EQ2 forums? And, overall, does any MMORPG get more hate that WoW? To hear it told, WoW wrecked the genre. Where does Landmark hate even add up next to that? Relative to some of the hate out there, the most damning thing you can say about the so-called MMO community is that they were largely indifferent to the game.

    In a world where EverQuest still gets an expansion every year and, by some accounts, has more regular players than any other DGC game, Landmark would have survived if it had any sort of broad appeal. But that would have taken a coherent design and real business plan. Instead, it was an attempt to get something for nothing.

    People will get over hate to play a good game. If Landmark had had enough to offer, it would have survived. It did not, which is DGC's fault.

    1. Yep, all true. I struggle to remember any MMO I've played where the community (for want of a better word) didn't act like they were being dragged by the hair to labor in the salt mines by a bunch of jackbooted stormtroopers rather than settling down in their leisure time to indulge in some pleasant amusements provided by hard-working professional entertainers.

      SOE/DBG does have a particularly bad history, though, stemming almost entirely from the NGE, which was probably LucasArts doing, although some stuff I read recently suggests Smed might have been a keener on it than he liked to suggest after the fact. I did think that when Smed finally departed some of that bad smell would go along with him but remarkably the response to the demise of hero's Song seems to have been almost sympathetic. Offering full refunds certainly helped there but I think maybe he earned some brownie points with his gung-ho reaction to the hacker fiasco last year (or was it the year before?) and weirdly the stain seems to have attached itself to the company instead.

      While I think closing EQNext, let alone Landmark, was absolutely the right decision I do wish they'd handled it more sensitively. Using "not fun" as a reason was positively insulting. It was either too expensive or too difficult, most likely both. We're grown up enough to take that and they would have earned credit for laying out the reasons in some detail, I think.

      Instead it just looks like they aren't interested in and have no feel for the business they are in (and by "they" I mean Columbus Nova). That may be true but it would be good business sense to keep it to themselves if so.

      Landmark, as we all know, was never a full "game". Feldon's piece amply explains that issue. Neither, however, was it the accessible, popular toolset it was meant to be. it was fiddly, buggy and just too complicated to appeal to anyone who just wanted to futz around and have fun in a ten dollar toy. Which isn't to say you couldn't wring plenty of fun out of it if you tried but that was never going to be enough.

      In the end, when I say "community" it's really Massively OP that I'm thinking of. Despite having writers who play and clearly love some DBG games, as a corporate entity they seem to revel in every opportunity to cry foul and point the finger. I'm guessing that's a commercial decision - those clickbait headlines presumably do a job. I'm at the point now where I don't even read the DBG-related posts on Massively half the time, let alone the comment threads, which i stopped reading long ago. On the other hand, some of the other MMO sites are even worse.

      All in all I think the closures and consolidations DBG have made over the last year have been very positive. A lot of deadwood needed to be cleared. We'll just have to wait to see what grows in the space they've made.

    2. Massively is an odd compromise when it comes down to it. It likely covers more MMO stuff than any other site largely because the writers are invested in the genre.

      The flip side to that is the writers carrying a lot of their own bagged to the table when they post. There is the SWG clique, for whom pre-NGE SWG was the absolute best MMORPG ever, despite the fact that Raph Koster pointing out that the game was losing subs rapidly well before the NGE. There are those for whom WoW did ruin the genre, or who feel that F2P ruins games, and so on. All of our blogger biases rolled into a single news site!

      Again, you probably notice more about the games you yourself are invested in. I noted the Landmark coverage, but never really paid much attention to the tone. I wasn't interested in anything besides general news.

      But when it comes to EVE, stories tend to get written by Eliot, who likes the sandbox nature but isn't really invested, Syp, who knows so little about the game that he cannot summarize the patch notes without making a grievous error, and Brendan, who doesn't like null sec in general, and hates Goons specifically, so his posts read like my favorite part of the game is a problem that needs to be fix starting with the removal of my team. And then there is the comments section, which has its own set of "must reinforce my oft stated opinion at every opportunity" regulars.

      Amusing side note: I sat next to Brendan at a blogger lunch at EVE Vegas and chatted with him for a bit, right up until I think he figured out who I was, after which I became invisible to him and he never once acknowledged my existence despite my saying "hello" to him at several later points.

  2. It really bothered me when I heard about Landmark, for whatever reason (not like I played it anymore) it's added to my general MMO malaise concerning the foreseeable future. Also, I have really learned my lesson about not paying for founder packs and early access ever again. *sigh* ...not sure what the future will bring in terms of new titles, for us traditional MMO players...

    Anyway, I also I came here to say Happy New Year, ol' Bhagpuss! :) You're one of the twitter grumps, so there you go! I look forward to read about whatever gaming adventures you'll find in 2017!

    1. Happy New Year! I think we were cross-posting on each other's blogs just then!

      As I blogged a few days ago, this year's list of forthcoming MMO attractions is pretty miserable. Doesn't bother me because not only do I still have literally dozens of MMOs I already started playing that I'm happy to carry on with but there are half a dozen really big ones I've never even tried.

      Landmark would have been a lot better if it had ever really worked. I had a lot of fun there but it was uphill against the wind most of the time. I won't miss it in the way I miss Rubies of Eventide or Zentia or Vanguard (thank god for the emu) or a good few others. With hindsight DBG should have shuttered Landmark when they canned EQNext and taken the PR hit in one bite but I imagine they still thought there was some possibility of fixing it. Clearly that was more wishful thinking and I really hope that kind of unjustified optimism has been burned out of the company at last.

      Looking forward to a leaner, more focused approach to making MMOs from all producers in the future. I think we need a few more failures and closures yet before we get there, though.

    2. Haha we're good at the xposting thing!
      And I hope you're right....I can live with leaner MMOs, I just hope we're not facing a decade of game developers avoiding all things MMO like the plague because of the big-budget failures of late serving as examples of where not to invest. :/

  3. Ooh, I'm a quote box now. Spiffy.

  4. You summed up a lot of how I feel about all this. I did make the choice to buy into alpha. I don't regret the money, time and experiences I had. For me, it was also like a toy to play with when the feeling was right.

    But beta bugs forced me to put the game down as it was unplayable for me for a year, and I lost a lot of desire to pick it up again after that. I haven't been playing it much since full launch, and that's on me. I was pretty much done with it, so I can't really pitch a fit that it's getting closed down, I suppose.

    The closure of Landmark worries me more in how it reflects on other Daybreak games. :(

    1. I find the current climate of fear and suspicion (a climate largely, it has to be said, whipped up and driven by MassivelyOP) entirely spurious. I see the closure of unprofitable MMOs and resource-draining vanity projects as both essential and welcome.

      SOE for the longest time operated from a position of unwarranted and untested security, backed by Sony's deep pockets. That was fine when Smed reported to Sony Pictures (I think that's right - I'm sure someone (Wilhelm most likely) will correct me if not) but when the oversight moved to the Playstation Division everything began to fall apart. That's when we got the seemingly endless series of weird, half-baked "innovations" like the face-twisting thing and the various mobile apps that didn't work and also that's when the PSS1 deal was forced through.

      In the final couple of years, pretty much from when EQNext was announced, it's clear with hindsight that everything was being done with a view to preparing SOE for sale. My feeling is that nothing during those two or three years happened with the interests of any current players in mind. Smed, arguably laudably, had the interests of his team at the forefront of his plans and his bosses just wanted to get shot of SOE and cut their losses.

      Consequently Columbus Nova, when they decided to buy in, ended up with a hotch-potch of properties that may very well not have been at all what they were expecting. These things always take a year or two but now we're seeing the benefit of a company that's operating without sentiment but with a clear intent to become stable and self-supporting.

      The outcome of this, medium term, is likely to be that the games that can make money will get the resources they deserve to go on making it. With good management that should mean EQ, EQ2 and DCUO will prosper (those being the ones I'm interested in - I imagine you could put H1Z1 in there, or one version of it at least). That is a lot more than I was expecting while SOE were still in charge and as a player and customer I feel significantly more sanguine about the next 2-3 years for those titles than I did a while ago.

      In the longer term I guess either CN will be in the MMO business like it or not or, perhaps more likely, they will have a portfolio of MMOs they can sell on for a good profit over what they paid SOE for them. That's also fine.

      Nothing lasts forever but neither does the paring away of dead wood mean the imminent death of the rest of the healthy tree.


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